Drawing Lessons

She told me her name was Anna. The big bonfire, on the lawn behind the old house, burned in her eyes. I was dazzled. She had long hennaed curls and a dress sense somewhere between hippie and goth. She didn’t like alcohol, and had only drunk a concoction made from lemonade, lime, soda water and ice – a ‘Bugger Me’, she called it. When some of the party-goers became boorishly drunk, she took my hand and led me away, over the lawn to the hedge, where we sidled through a gap into the trees beyond.

We walked through rattling darkness, her hand still in mine, her tall figure moving gracefully ahead of me. Eventually we came to a road on the other side of the spinney, which we followed until we arrived at a brick-built building, a stable block I thought. She squeezed my hand and led me up wooden steps, at the top of which was a wooden plank door that she unlocked with a key she shook from her shoulder bag.

As she went through the door, she slapped a dimmer switch on the wall. The light revealed a large, one-roomed, studio flat. Kitchen units lined the far wall. The bare floorboards were painted blue, and dotted with rugs stained with tea and paint. A bed, neatly made, was pushed against one wall. There was a small dining table, empty but for a bowl of fruit in its centre. The washing-up was done and stacked in the drainer. Chaos only began as we moved closer to the centre of the room, past an old and worn bed-settee and a walnut coffee table – stained with tea-cup rings, and oils and turps and white spirits – on which sat paints and brushes. Unemptied ashtrays spilled their grey, white and brown contents onto the table and the arm of a ripped leather armchair. At the centre of the room, beneath a skylight, stood an easel. On the floor around it bloomed the tiny flower heads of dripped paint. Finished and half-finished canvases lined one wall. On the floor, on tables, on chairs, lay pieces and pads of paper of all sizes, some containing dabs of watercolour, some pen and ink, others charcoal.

She flopped into the leather armchair and lit a cigarette. She threw the match towards an ashtray and missed. The match joined others on the floor under her chair. She crossed long legs encased in horizontally-striped black and beige tights.

I looked around the white-walled room. ‘This is…’ I began.

‘Quaint?’ Anna interrupted with a laugh. ‘Nice? Interesting?’

‘You took all the words out of my mouth.’

She looked around. ‘It will do for now,’ she said. ‘I would like better light, but I can’t afford a studio that provides it.’

I picked up a pad and flipped through the pages. The pad mostly contained pencil drawings.

‘You’re good,’ I said.

She smiled enigmatically. ‘How would you know?’

‘I’m no expert, but I know what I like.’

She laughed. ‘Do you draw or paint?’

‘No. I’m more practical. I’m an engineer. I only dabble in photography.’

‘A true novice,’ she said. ‘Let me see what you can do.’

She tossed me a pad and a pencil.

‘What shall I draw?’

‘Me.’

I tried my best to draw her, but her essence kept slipping away. Her tartan miniskirt and a tie-dyed, strappy top that she wore over her unconstrained, small breasts I rendered almost successfully. Her pale oval face and brown eyes had escaped me entirely. I frowned at the paper.

‘Have you finished, Mr Engineer?’ Anna asked.

I said I had. She came over, took the pad and knelt on the wooden floor in front of me.

‘It looks like a child’s drawing,’ she mused. ‘More sophisticated, perhaps, than a child. But still…’ She looked up at me. ‘You don’t mind me saying this?’

I shook my head. I knew she wasn’t being unkind. Her assessment was accurate. I had never been able to draw.

‘Everything has thick black lines. You draw like a child,’ she repeated. ‘You shouldn’t rely on the lines. Here, I’ll draw you.’

She stubbed out her cigarette, and picked up a stick of charcoal and a pad. I could hear the black stick scratching on the paper. She was quiet for a few moments, occasionally smudging the charcoal with her fingers. Then, she flipped the pad around with a smile.

It was me, all right. My wide mouth, narrow eyes, sticky-out ears. Her drawing had light lines that defined the shapes, but the form was provided by her shading, by the way she had represented light and shadow.

She looked at her picture again. ‘You could learn to to do it, too,’ she said. ‘It’s just practice.’

That night we drank Earl Grey, smoked cigarettes, and talked until the morning. I fell in love with her. I hoped that, one day, she could love me too, even though I knew that, in my Levis, trainers, and Fred Perry, I was far too straight for her. We were now friends, at least, and whenever I saw her I tried to draw her. There was no doubt that, with her help, I was getting better. One day, while she was making a pot of Earl Grey for us, I stole a photo of her from a photo album so that I could practice drawing her at home.

I came to love that picture. I studied it day after day as I tried to get the shapes and shades right, cross-hatching here and there, smudging my heavy pencil lines, learning to leave spaces where light should be. In the photograph she sat in the battered leather armchair, nursing a mug that I guessed was full of her favourite Earl Grey. A smile played about her lips, a smile just in the process of forming or dying – I couldn’t work out which – and her brown eyes seemed to throw out a challenge.

I struggled with my drawing. I returned to it whenever I could, applying what I learned from her. I filled pads with attempts that weren’t quite right. Sometimes I would fill a page with only the shapes of her eyes or her lips, or the fall of her curls to her shoulders. Page after page contained my attempts at shapes and textures, light and shadow. But I was getting closer to her. With each improvement, I was shaping a whole. My drawing, when complete, would be an emblem of my love.

Finally, struggle turned to success. I could see it. The image on the page was her, I was sure of it. I was so happy to have captured her at last. I was eager for her to know that I too was now an artist. I ran up the steps to the studio on a cool, grey October afternoon filled with swirling brown leaves. She was alone, as usual. She put the kettle on the hob, laughing at my enthusiasm. Then she sat me in the leather armchair and kneeled on the floor in front of me. She took the pad, and flipped it open. In my excitement, I had torn-out out my drawing and placed it at the very front of the pad, so that she would see it sooner. She studied the drawing for some time. The kettle whistled but she made no move to get it.

Then she looked at me. ‘Is this how you see me?’

I said yes, so excited by what I had achieved that I failed to see the sadness in her eyes. But the tone of her voice I could not mistake.

‘You can go now. Please go. And take your picture away.’

The kettle continued to whistle as I left.

Dereham Connections – Node 4 – “Raven of Dispersion”

So, after the contactees and spies and conspiracies of the early 1970s, Node 4 — Raven of Dispersion moves us into the middle of the decade, and the long, hot summer of 1976. We leave behind characters that we have followed through the two preceding novels. Now, instead of spies and contactees and night-club owners, we become involved with young adults.

But I don’t like to think of this as a young adult novel — the characters are simply young; when I was that age, I didn’t think of myself as a young adult. I just thought I was brilliant and knew everything.

The characters in Raven of Dispersion are burgeoning intellectuals, exploring the world of ideas through the unconventional route of UFOs and the paranormal, and their first explorations of T S Eliot, Karl Marx, DH Lawrence,  Colin Wilson, and so on. Of course, being young, there are feelings to contend with  — love, and that new-fangled word, relationships.

It is at this nexus of love and the unconventional that things go a little bit awry. Because the young can be just a bit too sure of themselves, certain that they know what they are doing. And the young might also think their experiments — with balloons and lights, let us say — can surely have no consequences beyond the scientific.

And yet one balloon, and one set of lights — mixed with a pinch of beauty and one lovin’ spoonful of psychosis — are the ingredients for a proper brouhaha.

Memory Traces

I surfed the Web, randomly entering into Google the words I found in the notepads that were scattered on the desk. The desk was a mess, I noted. Scraps of paper contained notes and doodles, yellow Post-it notes yelled imperatives and reminders, and the rings from coffee mugs stained A4 sheets and the desktop. The ashtray was full to overflowing. The bottle of scotch was empty. Had it all been downed in one sitting? I worked around the chaos, carried on entering words. Pages were displayed. I scrolled and followed links. What I was discovering, what I was creating, was like a picture, a map, a simulation, a metaframework, of a mind.

I displayed pages about Devon, train timetables to Leeds, a Google map of Bristol. I zoomed in, found Montpelier. A page in one notepad contained only the words Flickr and Wiltshire. I searched Flickr for tags, looked at pages of photographs of beautiful, soft, green, Wiltshire hills. I read essays about reality, quantum physics, red rain, ghosts, and post-structuralism. As I worked, I saved all the pages to a folder on the computer. I printed out pictures and texts that took my fancy, and placed some of them in a physical folder. Other pages I placed on the cream walls of the office using the pins and Blu-Tac I found in the desk drawers. I made connections between the pages using the coloured ribbons I had also found in the desk. I used as clues the scribbles I had found, the Web pages I had read, and my own intuitions. A ribbon linked a Google map of Dereham to a photo of a UFO, then a Google map of Roswell. One blue ribbon stretched from a map of Banbury to a picture of Leeds University. The link was one made from intuition, as Banbury had been a station my train had stopped at on a railway trip I had once made from Reading to Leeds. From that picture, a yellow ribbon stretched across the wall to a photograph of Middlesex University. The ribbon was pinned and then turned 90 degrees, ending at a picture of Meg Ryan. I believe that Middlesex University once had a performance arts course, and Meg is, of course, an actor. It made sense. It made sense. Of course it did. I felt it in my gut. I searched around the desk, the Web, for another link, looked in the notebooks, at the scraps of paper and Post-It notes. Soon, I had found the connection and pinned it to the wall. It was, of course, Jim Morrison. I printed the photo and placed it on the wall, added more ribbon from Meg to Jim.

I continued to do this for half a day. I trailed ribbons around the walls of the office, connecting by inference and reference, induction and deduction, intuition and knowledge. I stood back and looked at the walls, at my fully-realised network, my wall Web. At that moment I should have been proud of that Web. I wanted to be. I wanted to admire its utility, its coherence, its completeness. But all I could do was shake my head in dismay. I sat down heavily in the black leather office chair, rested my arms on its leather arms, and continued to look at the wall. It was obvious to me now. I had been such a fool. I should have used the colours of the ribbons to also present information, to indicate particular types of connections and relationships. Although dismayed, I am by nature, dogged, persistent; some might say obsessive, although I think that is too strong a word.  It didn’t take me long to work out a system I could use that would could convey the additional information. The ribbons were only available in a limited range of colours – less ROYGBIV, more RGBY. I made a note of the colours and the information each colour would represent on a scrap of paper, and then set to work again, stringing the ribbons from photo to map to document. I hardly needed to refer to the key I had devised. Unsurprising, I suppose, when you have a mind like mine.

I sat down again, leaned back in the leather chair, my hands behind my head, satisfied, proud at last of my labours. I lit a cigarette. It was a shame the whiskey bottle was empty; my throat was dry. Researching, making connections, following trails through the evidence, was thirsty work. I thought about making myself a mug of tea, but I didn’t really want to leave the room. For a moment, my world, the world I was constructing, the world I would shore against my ruins, was in this room, and only in this room. The picture was not yet complete. That much I knew. I closed my eyes and relaxed.

 *

 Now, I open my eyes and turn to the computer on the desk. My attention is drawn to the photograph on the wall above the monitor. She is a pretty woman, there’s no doubt. Blonde, slight, laughing, her arms outstretched in front of her, ready to catch something, it seems. A ball, perhaps, or a frisbee? There is blue sky behind her, and trees, heavy with full, fresh, green leaf, lean into the photograph from the side of the frame. Her summer dress, long, maroon, has been arrested by the act of photography, but I can imagine its movement continuing, twisting the dress around her. I wonder what she would think if she knew that I was still here, in her house? The house was quiet. I knew she wouldn’t be coming into this room today.

I am going to enter into a database all the Web pages I have so far saved to the computer. I shall also scan the documents and photographs and also enter those into the database. I can then cross-reference all these motes of information programmatically. The database will not be as visual as the map on the wall, will not so instantly conjure for me fragments of memory. Yet, in time, the database will offer up more interconnections, intersections and permutations. I will add more documents to the wall, more ribbons that show the all-important connections.

My hands are warm inside the latex gloves. I remember this – I had found these gloves, earlier in the day, today I think, in a drawer in the kitchen. I allow myself to turn my head and glance through the open door to the hallway. I will later clear away the bodies that still lie there so obscenely. Death has created a vacuum in my head. I am blanked, black, blocked, all empty, nothing. First, I must reconnect these fragments from my notebooks, my desk, My Favourites, My Documents, rebuild my world, rebuild my self, rebuild my identity, rebuild, rebuild, restructure, reframe, cross-reference – reconstruct me.

Only then, perhaps, can I know to whom those bodies once belonged, and why they are in my hall.

Simon and Julie – A Fragment – Chapter 2

[Simon and Julie is intended to be a long short story (perhaps a novella), involving various characters from the two as yet unpublished novels The Ethical Hitman and Raven of Dispersion. The story (and those novels) are set in and around the long, hot summer of 1976. The protagonists and antagonists are at that happy stage between A-levels and Uni (or A-levels and work ) – technically young adults, but these are not YA stories. As I work on this story, I will throw odd fragments here in the blog.]

Julie walked into town. She had no plan. She had rung Sarah’s house but there had been nobody there. Then she had dared ring Simon’s, but nobody was there, either. She had only momentarily contemplated ringing Tim before dismissing the idea. She had managed to elicit some more money from her parents, on a promise that it would be paid back from the money she got from Boots at the end of the week. She had bought ten Number Six in the Spar shop, and had enough left over for a drink or two.
The afternoon was hot and sunny. She was wearing jeans, tee-shirt, and jesus boots again, as she had seemed to do for most of the summer. Sometimes she despaired of the heat, wondered if it would go on forever, but most of the time simply enjoyed the odd, slightly Mediterranean, feeling that had descended on Dereham. Everybody was in tee-shirts and jeans, or in floaty, strappy, A-line summer dresses. Some of the more hippie girls were in halter-tops and skirts. In the evenings, people were drinking outside of the pubs, standing in the streets, smoking and chatting, and the beer gardens were, for a change, full and lively. Older people were preparing meals with salads and cold drinks and eating them in the garden. Young people hung their heads from car windows; music, thin and tinny, issued from the cars; hands  and arms were held out of the windows, sometimes flat and streamlined, sometimes made into blunt fists, and sometimes upright to cool the palms; shoeless feet rested on dashboards and doorframes.
She looked at the clock on the side of St Peter’s church tower. Five past one. The pubs would be open for another hour or so. She remembered what Simon had said yesterday. She should go to the White Lion. She hadn’t gone last night because… well, she had no money, and hadn’t wanted to bump into Tim. She’d had a nice day yesterday with Simon, Chris and Gray. The day had been so lovely and relaxing she had no inclination to ruin it by bumping into Tim.  In the evening she had watched some television with her parents and sister, and then gone to her bedroom to listen to Carole King and James Taylor and read a book. Today, Tim would be at work in Southleigh, so she was free to enjoy the sun. And perhaps enjoy Simon again, if he was around.
She crossed the road to the crescent of shops that curved around the market. In the centre of the shops was the White Lion. She walked up the steps, and went to the saloon bar. She poked her head around the door; there was no sign of Simon, but his friend Mark was there, chatting with two other people Julie knew, Imogen and James. She went to the bar and bought a Britvic orange. When she turned, she caught Mark’s eye. He waved her over.
“Nice to see you here,” Mark said as she sat next to him.
“Simon said I should come here more often,” Julie said. “Is he around?”
“No, he’s gone for a walk with Stuart, out over the hills. Fitness freaks, the pair of them.”
Julie knew that Simon did Kung Fu and Tai Chi. Stuart played badminton, and walked a lot. They sometimes did go off on long hikes together. Oh well, she would sit here and find out what had been happening in the worlds of Mark, James and Imogen.
“It’s too hot for that madness,” Mark said. “That’s why I have a motorbike.”
“Uh, I thought it was to pull the, uh, chicks,” James said.
Mark sighed, and then frowned. “There’s only one chick I want to pull,” he said.
Everybody knew who he meant, so nobody said anything.
Julie looked at James. He was drinking brandy, as ever. He had a job in Bensons at the weekends, and received generous amounts of pocket-money from his well-off parents. His beard was very extravagant for an eighteen-year old.  She smiled.  “Can I just say just say, your beard is more ridiculous every time I see it.”
Mark and Imogen laughed. “Always to the point,” Imogen said.
“But it is! You’re turning into a caveman.”
James had always been a fast developer, and had needed to shave before any of his friends, sometimes turning up in the fifth year at school with a faint five o’clock shadow. His hairiness had only increased during sixth-form, as he had become more of a freak, growing his dark hair until it reached his shoulders, and encouraging the beard that had quickly sprouted from his chin into a full Victorian-style monster.
“Shaving is for the bourgeoisie,” James said, always quick to separate himself from the proletariat and the middle-class, yet still hoping – while he drank brandy, pocketed the money from his parents, and read T S Eliot – that he was still relevant and connected with the working-class.